Claire Keegan’s “Small Things Like These,” published in November 2021, rather remarkably rebooted an auspicious career that had gone dormant. The slim, yuletide novella was the Irish writer’s first new fiction in more than a decade, but proved well worth the wait. The story of a coal and timber merchant who must weigh the practical concerns of his business and family against his deeply held, if idealistic, morals, both delighted long-time fans and entranced new audiences. It drew near universal critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, and subsequently factored in the discussion of many top literary awards, including the Booker Prize.
Perhaps owing to the novella’s success, American readers didn’t even have to wait a full year for their next dose of Keegan’s fiction. In early November 2022, Grove Atlantic issued the first US edition of “Foster,” a lengthy story that had won Ireland’s lucrative Davy Byrnes prize in 2009 and subsequently appeared abridged in The New Yorker in February 2010. That tale of the reciprocally restorative summer that a young girl spends with a grieving married couple again garnered deserved raves, while achieving the rare feat of being almost preternaturally heartwarming without toppling into schmaltz.
If you only know Keegan’s writing through these titles, you’re in luck because for the third year running, she has an impressive new book out. Devotees may feel somewhat let down, however, because it’s all previously been published. “So Late in the Day” is a characteristically incisive, if somewhat meager, collection of three short stories that span the entirety of Keegan’s career. Both thematically and substantively, it reveals a different side of her writing than her two recent releases. Where those books were animated largely by concerns for the future, expressed through adults considering the well-being of children, no children factor in these three stories, each of which focuses on interactions between one man and one woman who are not married to each other. (One pair gets engaged; one woman is married to someone off the page.) And unlike with “Foster” and “Small Things,” readers are not likely to emerge from “So Late” having renewed their faith in humanity’s potential for kindness.
The title story of “So Late in the Day” appeared in The New Yorker in February 2022, and sees a young man called Cathal grappling with the course of his two-year relationship with Sabine. Cathal is a taker, his shocking lack of self-awareness immediately recognizable. He was raised with little respect for the women in his life, and remains the kind of guy who “always resented the number of dirty dishes” left behind by Sabine when she cooks dinner for him. Yet to hear him tell it, the problem lies with “the fact that she would not listen, and wanted to do a good half of things her own way.” The nerve.
In “The Long and Painful Death,” included in US editions of Keegan’s 2007 story collection “Walk the Blue Fields,” a woman’s 39th birthday is interrupted by a German man wanting to tour the historic property where she has just begun a two-week writer’s residency. He is a retired literary professor, so his interest in the Henrich Böll House, which is hosting the solitary retreat, is plausibly professional at first. But his motivations are revealed as selfish, his entitlement and his agenda all-consuming. The unnamed woman is almost incidental to his grievances, though she — like Sabine — is able to draw a measure of empowerment from the abuse she experiences.
“Antarctica,” which anchored Keegan’s 1999 debut collection of the same name, tracks a “happily married woman” determined to have an affair during her Christmas shopping weekend in the big city. The man she chooses to chat up, described with lacerating wit as having “a red complexion, a gold chain inside an open-necked Hawaiian shirt, [and] mud-colored hair,” sees himself as “the loneliest man in the world.” The story oozes desire and features lots of sex and even more unheeded warning signs, evoking the bygone erotic thrillers of 1980s and 1990s cinema.
Despite two of these stories having been written more than 15 years ago, the issues of agency and misogyny addressed throughout “So Late” feel particularly germane to our current social environment. Keegan’s thrifty prose again yields concise, substantive, and spellbinding storytelling, but the mood is bleaker than her recent publications. “Foster” and “Small Things” both contain elements of sorrow, vulnerability, and even depravity, but the foreboding that suffuses “So Late” crescendos within each story and across the collection. While the men are dissimilar in action and demeanor, their disdain for women — manifest passively, aggressively, and violently — unites them. As such, they represent different points on the spectrum of malignant masculinity as well as different degrees of danger.
Because none of the characters in the latter two stories are named, it’s possible to envision all three women as Sabine, but for every casual aside that makes this intriguing unity possible, another detail renders it moot. What they do share is a world that has enabled misogynist behavior of all kinds for far too long, an attitude summed up by Sabine as “simply about not giving. Whether it’s believing you should not give us the vote or not give help with the dishes.” It’s wonderful to see one of today’s most astute writers tackle these topics, even if greedily I wish that she had done so via new stories.
SO LATE IN THE DAY: Stories of Women and Men
By Claire Keegan
Grove, 128 pp., $20
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance critic.